A kinetic life: North Kitsap engineer leaves four-wheeled legacy

The Spirit of Muckle Flugga emerges from the sea during a kinetic sculpture race. - Courtesy Connie Morgenstern
The Spirit of Muckle Flugga emerges from the sea during a kinetic sculpture race.
— image credit: Courtesy Connie Morgenstern

POULSBO — When the Spirit of Muckle Flugga rolled down a street, walkers stopped and reveled in its improbability. Children stared. Traffic came to a standstill.

"People, they light up when they see it," said Charlie Bodony, one of Muckle Flugga's creators. "What they thought was possible just went out the window."

What admirers saw was a machine rolling tall on six-foot-high wheels, emblazoned with mythical beasts and trailed by a bagpipe band. Astride the Flugga, four pedalers cranked furiously, driving the kinetic sculpture over streets, through bogs, sand traps and water.

The co-creator of this cartoon-like contraption was a man with an active mind and a quiet demeanor. Steve Morgenstern was a trained engineer and a man of deep religious faith. He had the perseverance, Bodony said, to make a rolling phenomenon like the Muckle Flugga possible.

"He taught me the word 'commitment,'" Bodony said.

Morgenstern, Bodony and the Spirit of Muckle Flugga rolled high for two decades in the colorful kinetic racing world. Today, the Flugga rests its oversized wheels in a barn in Poulsbo, far from the frenzy of the racecourse.

Morgenstern died of cancer last fall at age 50. For several months, his wife Connie has advertised Muckle Flugga for sale. She plans to donate the money to charity in Morgenstern's memory. But finding a buyer for a 1,600-pound pedaling machine built for four is about as easy as it sounds.

"It will have to be someone very special," she said.

'A most unusual creation'

Building brought Bodony and Morgenstern together.

They met in 1984 as stage hands for a production of "Fiddler on the Roof" on Bainbridge Island. The friends rented a house in Suquamish. Morgenstern worked at the Navy shipyard and Bodony looked for more stage work.

In 1987 Bodony watched a kinetic sculpture race for the first time in Port Townsend. Kinetic racing challenges builders to invent human-powered machines that can crawl over a a variety of terrains. The endeavor is as much artistic as it is mechanical. The machines look like creations from a Dr. Seuss book — red fish, blue dragons, pink poodles. The crowd and pilots are costumed and racedays are festive.

Bodony came back inspired.

"Immediately I thought, 'I can do better than this,'" Bodony said. "It turns out it's really challenging."

Bodony drew up the concept for the Spirit of Muckle Flugga and Morgenstern — the engineer — refined it.

They bought 60 sheets of quarter-inch plywood at Kingston Lumber and began assembling the machine, piece-by-piece, in their shop in Suquamish. Friends from around Kitsap pitched in as neighborhood kids loitered around the shop.

Four hundred parts went into each water-tight wheel. Each pedaling station was equipped with its own 15-speed drivetrain, made from modified bicycle parts. Morgenstern spent untold thousands on parts and material. Nearly 100 people lent a hand in one way or another.

Two years later, when the sawdust cleared, a 15-foot-long, 8-foot-wide creation stood in their Suquamish yard.

Bodony and Morgenstern christened the sculpture "Spirit of Muckle Flugga," after a remote lighthouse on the jagged north coast of Scotland's Shetland Islands. They'd heard the name in a song and it seemed fitting.

"A most unusual creation deserves an unusual name," Morgenstern wrote on his website.

'Playing kinetic'

The Spirit of Muckle Flugga was late to its debut at Port Townsend's SkulPTure Race in October 1990.

It still made a grand entry rolling to the start with bagpipes blaring. Muckle Flugga turned heads for the next two decades.

"When you saw it, you just said 'wow,' " said Janet Emery, who has organized the SkulPTure Race for 17 years.

On the track, the machine was ponderously slow yet steady. It lumbered from pavement to mud to water without stopping. Its drivetrain turned pedalers' legs to jelly but the ride was still exhilarating.

"It was the most terrific thing I have ever done," Bodony said.

Muckle Flugga competed in races from Port Townsend to Oregon. It made cameos at bicycle expos and boat shows, even navigating the Ballard Locks. Kinetic fans came from California to see it. Word of its success reached the real Muckle Flugga.

"How exactly a massive four-man floating quadricycle that is winning kinetic sculpture races in the state of Washington is linked to the remote tooth of black rock where the North Sea meets the Atlantic is far from clear," a befuddled columnist wrote in a 1996 edition of The Shetland Times. "... but linked it is by name."

While the Spirit of Muckle Flugga was an instant success on the kinetic scene it took Morgenstern longer to find his place. He was the contemplative engineer, awash in a sea of creativity.

"At first he was a little uptight, but then he started to relax and have a good time," Bodony said. "That's the wonderful thing about kinetics, it brings people together."

Before long, Morgenstern was dressing in costume and "playing kinetic," Emery said.

In recent years, as his health declined, Morgenstern stopped racing and instead served as a judge and organizer.

"He had this great presence about him," Emery said. "He did whatever we needed him to do."

A rolling legacy

Morgenstern died in September, leaving Connie with his memory, the Spirit of Muckle Flugga and a shop full of parts.

In the years before his death, he had been building "New Muckle Flugga," an aluminum reincarnation of the Flugga design. Connie supported Morgenstern's kinetic adventures but was a reluctant participant.

"It was his passion," she said. "Not necessarily mine."

Connie has advertised the Spirit of Muckle Flugga off and on for a few months. She's had some interest but few people have both the passion for kinetics and the money — she's asking about $5,000 — to follow through.

Bodony, now a chili pepper farmer in Port Townsend, said he would love to buy Muckle Flugga, but doesn't have the cash.

He still races his own creation, "The Magic Bus," and plans to start a non-profit group to bring kinetics into schools.

While The Spirit of Muckle Flugga cools its wheels in Poulsbo, Morgenstern's memory rolls on at kinetic events. A special award for dedication is now given in his honor at the Kinetic SculPTure race.

"We're trying to keep his legacy alive as best we can," Bodony said.

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